Tag Archives: Palaeography

Learning to read German legal responsa

Banner "rechtsprechung im Osteeraum

Modern technology has taken up the challenge of reading old scripts, the domain of palaeography. One of the best known tools, Transkribus, is currently used in a project on legal resources held at the university archives in Greifswald. The project Rechtsprechung im Ostseeraum. Digitization & Handwritten Text Recognition focuses on sources dealing with Germany’s legal history in the region on the borders of the Baltic Sea. The project aims at making accessible 102.000 pages of legal instructions of the Faculty of Law of the Universität Greifswald (Spruchakten der Greifswalder Juristenfakultät, 1580-1800), 130.000 pages of opinions of the judges at the Wismar Tribunal (Relationen der Assessoren am Wismarer Tribunal, 1746-1845) as well as 25.000 pages of opinions of the judges of the Wismar Council Court (Relationen des Wismarer Ratsgericht) (1701-1879). users will get access to images of these sources and they will be able to perform text searches in this corpus. The Transkribus tool is being trained to recognize Early Modern handwriting of very different scribes. Does is succeed indeed in creating reliable transcriptions? What efforts are necessary to make such sources ready for computerized approaches?

Scribal varieties and the use of computers

Logo READ

At various European universities and archives teams use the Transkribus tool of the READ (Recognition and Enrichment of Archival Documents) project and even a special portable scanning tent for projects which contain many thousand pages in Early Modern or medieval scripts. Combined with a very active presence on Twitter it can sometimes almost seem Transkribus is virtually the only proven tool in this field. Until now the number of projects with the Transkribus tool for documents specifically dealing with legal history is small. The recent announcement of the project at Greifswald at the Transkribus blog offers an opportunity to see the tool at last at work for legal historians.

A "Spruckakte" from 1586

A “Spruchakte” from 1586, Universitätsarchiv Greifswald – image: Digitale Bibliothek Mecklenburg-Vorpommern

At the bilingual project website in Greifswald it becomes quickly clear in the sources overview that you can find currently only images of four registers of Spruchakten from Greifswald which are shown at the Digitale Bibliothek Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. The initial choice for only four registers was made with a view to the Transkribus tool which has to digest the letter forms and writing patterns in order to become a functional reading tool. The registers contain documents from 1586, 1603, 1607 and 1643. The Universitätsarchiv Greifswald has digitized several series, among them immatriculation registers and charters, but the Spruchakten are not mentioned in this overview. On the other hand the university archive and library are currently present with the largest collections in the Digitale Bibliothek Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. The other institutional partners in this project are the Universitätsbibliothek Greifswald, the Stadtarchiv Wismar and the Landesarchiv Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in Schwerin. The Stadtarchiv Wismar has a web page about the creation of finding aids for the records of the Wismarer Tribunal in its holdings and also those in other archives, with some references to relevant literature.

One of the reasons to use digital tools for studying these legal materials is their nature. The series of legal instructions and verdicts is organized in chronological order and only indexed for the names of claimants and defendants. The sheer working power in dealing with a massive set of (textual) data can make a huge difference for starting at all with a project concerning documents linked with a particular legal court in some or all of its dimensions.

Using the Transkribus tool

For using the Transkribus tool you need to create a free account. You need to download the tool. There is a succinct user guide (PDF) and an extensive online guide in the Wiki format. The tool is the core of a set of accompanying websites and cloud services. OCR (Optical Character Recognition) and HTR (Handwritten Text Recognition) are both possible. You will need to contact the team at the Universität Innsbruck for starting the “training” of the tool, the process of recognizing and correctly deciphering various forms of writing. Among the most interesting result with this tool is the high percentage of correctly resolved texts in Early Modern Dutch archival records. The “model” succeeded not only in reading just one kind of script, but dealt equally successful with several kinds of handwriting. Depending on the number of words fed into the machine the character error rate (CER) can reach very low levels. A recent post at the Rechtsprechung im Ostseeraum discusses the difference between word error rate and CER.

On Tuesday October 29, 2019 Annemiek Romein (Universiteit Gent) and Jeroen Vandommele gave a webinar at the Dutch Royal Library about using Transkribus. Provided you can follow Dutch viewing this webuinar gives you a very useful introduction to the practical use of this transcription tool, albeit with a focus on optical character recognition for dealing with printed texts, in particular collections of ordinances and the resolutions of the Staten-Generaal. I wa sin particular impressed by the way you can zoom in on and select text blocks. Aspects such as the costs of using Transkribus and surely the most asked question, its final reading speed, currently one page within a minute, come also into view.

As for now the project in Greifswald brings only a set of legal instructions by the law faculty of Greifswald. These gain in importance when sets from the other two resources, the opinions of the Wismar Ratsgericht and the Tribunal are added. It will be most interesting to see whether the opinions of the law professors deal with cases heard at one of the two legal courts. Combining them with the verdicts themselves is a logical sequel. I had hoped to report here more about the ins and outs of this project, but on the other hand it is a realistic example of work in progress, not a finalized and fully dressed product.

Despite careful looking at the project website I could not readily detect the entrance to transcribed records, but I did reach a password protected page. You must forgive me my predilection for websites with site maps and clear navigation! However, the project team gives a very good description of the various stages of preparations needed for the workflow of their project. The team is right in approaching these stages as separate but intertwined projects which all need due attention. In the blog posts at the project website a lot of subjects have been touched upon, and this steadily stream will hopefully continue in coming years. It is certainly useful to get acquainted with this and other tools, to look at its procedures and terminology in order to carefully consider the chances and risks of using such tools.

The second Transkribus logo

It seems wise to look in more detail at the Transkribus website and its subdomains. On the main website the overview of pages for the Transkribus tool is essential. The transcription tool itself is hosted at a subdomain. Perhaps surprisingly there is also a page about the palaeography module offered by Transkribus at another subdomain, Transkribus LEARN. Here you can find hundreds of script examples. It is understandable Transkribus focuses at its transcription tool, but this palaeographical resource deserves to be knownfor anyone wanting to learn reading old scripts. This way of learning by doing it yourself has to be distinguished from the “learning” of the “model”, the process by which the transcription tool digests information about scripts from a set of documents for automatic deciphering. As an extra you might want to visit Famous Hands, a site with documents showing the handwriting of famous European persons. It is a bit amusing to see how Transkribus Learn and Famous Hands can seem almost hidden from direct view, but Transkribus LEARN is duly listed at the services page. here, too, a sitemap would be helpful.

The datasets of Transkribus have been put at the Zenodo platform with the title ScriptNet – READ. The fleet of deliverables, the newspeak term for finished products from a project, are listed at a separate page of the main website. Components such as the transcription tool, the portable ScanTent which works with Transkribus’ own DocScan app, the link to Famous hands, the GitHub repository of Transkribus and also the several components of the tools developed by various European teams can be found at this page. The socalled Transkribus KWS interface for keyword spotting brings you to a project for Finnish court records from 1810 to 1870 held at the Kansallisarkisto, the National Archives of Finland (interface Finnish and English), yet another subject touching upon legal history.

At the end of this brief presentation of the Transkribus tool and its current uses for legal history it is fair to mention at least concisely some other available tools, following no particular order. Transcripto is a tool with a German and English interface created at the Universität Trier. Looking at Scripto I thought for some time it might also be a transciption tool like Transkribus, but it is a transcription interface created by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media for crowdsourcing projects which can be integrated with several CMS systems.

TranScriptorium was the earlier incarnation of the READ project. Among the five datasets at the old project website are transcriptions of verdicts given by the German Reichsgericht between 1900 and 1914, a project led by Jan Thiessen (Universität Tübingen). This set of documents in the Kurrent script has been transferred to the document sets of Transkribus; you can access it after free registration. Christian Reul (Würzburg) has created OCR4ALL, a tool for dealing with OCR scanning of historical printed editions. It turns out it is fairly easy to find transcription platforms with various levels of image and transcription integration. In some cases there are even distinct layers for guiding and moderating crowdsourcing projects, but finding a tool for electronic recognition and transcription of historical handwriting and old printed works remains a challenge which certainly deserves a separate contribution.

A postscript

Within a few days Elisabeth Heigl of the project team at Greifswald sent a comment with the good news of a very useful overview in English for searching and browsing the documents in the Digitale Bibliothek Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. With the search function you will see the result of the HTR done by Transkribus.

For all those curious about Transkribus and wanting to start using you might have a look for example at these blog posts elsewhere, ‘Digitize a Collection of Letters using Transkribus and XSLT‘ at the blog How to of the Austrian Centre for Digital Humanities,  ‘How to historical text recognition: A Transkribus Quickstart Guide‘ at LaTex Ninja’ing and the Digital Humanities, and Issue 13: OCR (July 2019) of Europeana Tech.

200 years Monumenta Germaniae Historica, a story of editions, projects and scholars

Flyer "200 Jahre MGH-Editionen"Every year some subjects and themes are brought to your attention just because there is some jubilee or centenary. In the face of their sheer number I wisely do not venture to trouble you with all centennial or even bicentennial celebrations. For me the Monumenta Germaniae Historica are exceptional in many ways. In view of the scholarly impact on the field of medieval history, German and European history, and in particular many fields of legal history. A meeting in Frankfurt am Main on January 20, 1819 has had a very important influence on the shaping of history as a scholarly discipline taught at universities. The flow of editions produced in two centuries is one thing to marvel at, but the story of this institution is much richer. Some celebrations have already been held in January, but the last week of June 2019 has been chosen as the week with more events around this bicentenary. I will try to be as concise as possible, but the story of the MGH deserves space!

History, nationalism, Romanticism

Logo MGH, Munich

The start of the project we now know as the Monumenta Germaniae Historica happened in a particular time and place. Horst Fuhrmann analyzed concisely in his splendid book on the scholars of the MGH the start of this enterprise and much more, and I follow here his lead [Sind eben alles menschen gewesen. Gelehrtenleben im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert. Dargestellt am Beispiel der Monumenta Germaniae Historica und ihrer Mitarbeiter (Munich 1998; online, MGH (PDF))]. After the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1803, according to the late Peter Landau more important in Germany’s history than the reforms created by Napoleon, after the Napoleonic wars and the establishment of a new political order in Europe at the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815) there was time in Germany to look backwards. You would assume that a number of people influenced by Romanticism founded the Gesellschaft für ältere deuttsche Geschichtskunde. the society for the study of older German history, but Lorenz vom Stein (1757-1831) and his visitors were not the archetypical romantics. This lawyer and former Prussian minister met at Frankfurt am Main with four delegates of the Bundestag, the central organ of the Deutsche Bund (1815). Vom Stein was known for his proposals for reforming public law and administration. Instead of looking back at the past he wanted to work to rebuild and strengthen Germany as a nation. The project originally set out to publish a number of sources in a relatively short time span, maybe ten years. Vom Stein had been in contact with leading German romantics to ask for their opinion and support.

In the first years the project met with some approval but also with indifference, criticism and even derision. Metternich subjected the first volumes to censorship. One of the ironies was the fact a team of students was sent to Paris to copy medieval manuscripts, because they were more bountiful and better accessible in the French capital than in other major libraries. The German states did not want to put money into the MGH. An offer for funding the project came not from German politicians, but from the Russian tsar. Vom Stein politely declined and spend a lot of his own money. In 1820 an accompanying journal was started, the Archiv für ältere deutsche Geschichtskunde, the ancestor of the current Deutsches Archiv für Erforschung des Mittelalters. From 1823 onwards an archivist from Hannover, Georg Heinrich Pertz (1795-1876), led the small team around Vom Stein. He designed the division of the editions into five major series, the Scriptores for editions of works dealing with history, the Leges with legal resources, the Epistolae for letters, the Diplomata for charters, and the Antiquitates for other sources. Pertz stayed with the Monumenta for fifty years.

Fuhrmann, himself a former president of the MGH, was quite right in writing a story about scholars as people, ordinary mortals with great gifts and sometimes wilful personal characteristics. The strife between Pertz and Georg Waitz (1813-1886) was not only a matter of different visions of history and scholarly practices, an archivist developing on his own the historical-critical method to edit sources against a scholar trained by Ranke, but also a clash of two humans. Some projects stemming from the MGH belong to the Vorarbeiten, preliminary works such as the Regesta Imperii started by Johann Friedrich Böhmer who later on after quarrels with the MGH decided to edit a series Fontes rerum Germanicarum (4 vol., Stuttgart 1843-1868). Others, too, had their trouble with the MGH and started their own series. Philipp Jaffé edited after his break with Pertz the series Bibliotheca rerum Germanicarum (6 vol., Berlin 1864-1873). Thus the MGH delivered not only its editions, but set path-breaking examples of using the historical-critical method. It became a model for projects abroad by the very fact they initially stuck to just publishing sources, not scholarly monographs. Controversies about its role and aims led to other important scholarly projects in the field of medieval history.

A human history

With Philipp Jaffé (1819-1870) we encounter perhaps the most tragic of all Monumentisten. Jaffé had studied in Berlin, and without getting a Ph.D. he started his own projects. The first edition of his Regesta pontificum Romanorum, a work listing 11,000 papal acts and charters up to 1198, appeared in 1851. In these years he studied medicine in Berlin and Vienna, believing he had no chance to make a career as an historian being a Jew. However, Ranke considered Jaffé his very best student and made him the first ausserplanmässiger professor in all Germany. Between 1854 and 1862 he worked for the MGH. On the title pages of the six volumes of the Scriptores series Jaffé helped editing his name was not mentioned. In 1863 a feud developed between him and Pertz, who eventually wanted to deny him access to the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin. Jaffé started his own series with major source editions. He got estranged from his family, converted to Lutheranism, and in growing isolation he took his life in 1870, a fact that shocked the scholarly world.

It is impossible to follow here the MGH and its contributors through all its history, if only for the sheer number of scholars for which you can find photographs at the MGH website. Jews had indeed a great role for the published editions. In particular Harry Bresslau, the author of the Geschichte der Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Hannover 1921; reprint 1976; online, MGH) felt hurt under antisemitic attacks. During the period of the Third Reich Ernst Perels and Wilhelm Levison were among the targets of the Nazi regime. The MGH became a Reichsinstitut für ältere deutsche Geschichtskunde, but Nazi control was not total. In 1939 Levison could find a refuge in Durham. In 1944 the MGH had to leave Berlin for Pommersfelden near Bamberg. In 1949 the institute came to Munich where the MGH found in 1967 its current location in the main building of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek. You can find the titles of the MGH’s own publications about its history on this web page.

The library collection of the MGH is now famous for its riches, but it was only after getting in 1907 the books of Ludwig Traube and in 1911 those of Oswald Holder-Egger a substantial library came into existence [see Norbert Martin, ‘Die Bibliothek der Monumenta Germaniae’Bibliotheksforum Bayern 19/3 (1991) 287-294]. One of the special qualities of the online catalogue is the presence of links to reviews of works in the Deutsches Archiv. Nowadays we may take dMGH, the digital MGH, for granted, but such projects are solely possible with financial means and other support by institutions as for example the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG). The MGH have a legal status under public law as an institution for the Freistaat Bayern with subventions by other Bundesländer. I have been fortunate to work in 1997 and 1998 with the library staff of the MGH, and my fond memories of these days prompt me to write here, too. Apart from the vast collection with printed books on the history of medieval Europe the Virtueller Lesesaal offers a lot of books in several sections. Here I would like to single out the digital version of Paul Oskar Kristeller’s Latin manuscript books before 1600. A list of the printed catalogues and unpublished inventories of extant collections (4th edition, 1993; supplement, 2006; revised digital edition 2016). This indispensable guide has been revised and updated by Sigrid Krämer and Birgit Christine Arensmann.

A mighty enterprise

The time with just five massive series of editions is long ago, a mighty fleet of series has sailed into our century. The Monumenta Germaniae Historica in its printed form take many shelves in a library and make a mighty impression. In the early eighties the very stacks with the folio volumes of the MGH collapsed in the rather new library of the history department in Utrecht, luckily before opening hours. Apart from a library catalogue you might better use the yearly leaflet with an overview of the editions which duly was posted near these stacks. The Gesamtverzeichnis 2019 is also available online (PDF). In 1997 even the library of the MGH decided to catalog again all editions since 1826.

Legal historians will within the old series and the current program of edition projects first of all turn to the Leges and Diplomata series. In the Leges series there are currently projects for sources such as the Collectio Gaudenziana (Wolfgang Kaiser), the Collectio Walcausina (Charles Radding), a part of the Leges Langobardorum, capitularies, formulae, and even for the most intriguing and difficult corpus of Pseudo-Isidorian decretals, just one example of a project which cannot be seen properly without looking to other forged collections around it. More soberly it is also an example of a project running over many decades. If you remember Antonio Agustín’s reluctance in the late sixteenth century to pronounce a clear verdict, a forgery or genuine material, even though he was in the best position to do this, you will understand the courage of scholars such as Horst Fuhrmann, Schafer Williams, Klaus Zechiel-Eckes and now Eric Knibbs to proceed in their wake with finally producing a critical text edition. Among other projects in this series are editions of medieval councils, a new edition of Regino of Prüm, royal constitutions, the glosses to the Sachsenspiegel, and the Latin version of an other treatise on German law, the Schwabenspiegel. It is good to see here attention for several kinds of legal systems

The publications within the Diplomata series may seem more straightforward. The sheer mass of charters issued from the Carolingian period onwards is indeed much greater than one could calculate in the first half of the nineteenth century. Nowadays not only charters of kings and emperors are being edited, volumes for some princes have appeared, too, and also for the Latin kings of Jerusalem. For the charters of the emperors Henry V and Henry VI there is even a digital pre-edition online, for the latter only for German recipients. Dieter Hägemann and Jaap Kruisheer, assisted by Alfred Gawlik, edited the two volumes of Die Urkunden Heinrich Raspes und Wilhelms von Holland (2 vol., Wiesbaden 1989-2006) with the charters of the only Roman king from the Low Countries. It is also the only case in which a Dutch scholar worked on a volume published for the MGH.

As for the newer series it is sensible to look here at just three series. In the series MGH Hilfsmittel we find works such as Uwe Horst, Die Kanonessammlung Polycarpus des Gregor von S. Grisogono. Quellen und Tendenzen (Wiesbaden 1980), the Wortkonkordanz zum Decretum Gratiani, Timothy Reuter and Gabriel Silagi (eds.) (5 vol., Wiesbaden 1990), the monograph of Rudolf Pokorny and Hartmut Hoffmann, Das Dekret des Bischofs Burchard von Worms. Textstufen – Frühe Verbreitung – Vorlagen (Wiesbaden 1991), and the printed edition of Linda Fowler-Magerl, Clavis Canonum. Selected canon law collections before 1140 (2005). Her work is now available online in a database with a German and English interface. Danica Summerlin and Christoph Rolker have added new canonical collections to the database.

The series Schriften der Monumenta Germaniae Historica is one of the oldest series to supplement the original program. You can choose at will in this series for classic studies. I mention here for legal history Arno Borst, Die Katharer (Stuttgart 1953), Horst Fuhrmann, Einfluß und Verbreitung der pseudoisidorischen Fälschungen von ihrem Auftauchen bis in die neuere Zeit (3 vol., Stuttgart 1972-1974), the six volumes of the congress Fälschungen im Mittelalter (6 vol., Stuttgart 1988-1990), Harald Siems, Handel und Wucher im Spiegel frühmittelalterlicher Rechtsquellen (Stuttgart 1992), and Maike Huneke, Iurisprudentia romano-saxonica. Die Glosse zum Sachsenspiegel-Lehnrecht und die Anfänge deutscher Rechtswissenschaft (Wiesbaden 2014).

Within Studien und Texte, the third series which I like to mention, you will find indeed both source editions and monographs, such as Stephan Beulertz, Das Verbot der Laieninvestitur im Investiturstreit (Wiesbaden 1991), and Sascha Ragg, Ketzer und Recht. Die weltliche Ketzergesetzgebung des Hochmittelalters unter dem Einfluß des römischen und kanonischen Rechts (Wiesbaden 2006), the first of a number of recent volumes in this series with studies and editions concerning medieval inquisitions. For your convenience I refer to the page on medieval legal procedure of my legal history website where I have included these works.

Time to celebrate

Flyer Bock auf MittelalterIn its long and illustrious history the Monumenta Germaniae Historica had to deal with many crises and decisive moments. Think only of the 1880 fire in the house of Theodor Mommsen in Charlottenburg which destroyed working materials of the Monumenta, his personal library and some precious manuscripts in his custody! Remember the periods with a stifling political climate in the dark times of the Nazi regime. During the Second World War some materials were stored in a mine which was destroyed in 1945. Many projects suffered setbacks when editors failed to do their jobs properly, when death came too soon for experts dealing with most difficult matters, or clashes happened between scholars. The presidents and the Zentraldirektion have to steer between many rocks. Sometimes the presence of particular scholars is most helpful. From my own period I cherish the memory of Reinhard Elze, former director of the Deutsches Historisches Institut in Rome, who walked each day from his home to the MGH in the Ludwigstrasse. I think his steady rhythm and kind presence helped everyone in a way to stay focused and open to people and ways to solve problems of any kind. The funny poster makes me remember the way Horst Fuhrmann could make jokes and show his happiness.

The program for the jubilee contained events in Berlin and Vienna in January, the festivities of last week in Munich, and a symposium to be held at the DHI in Rome on November 28-29, 2019 on “Das Reichsinstitut für ältere deutsche Geschichtskunde 1935 bis 1945 – ein “Kriegsbeitrag der Geisteswissenschaften”? [The research institute of the Reich for the study of older German history, 1935-1945. A war contribution of the humanities?]. The DHI and the MGH were forced to merge in 1935. What impact did the control of the Reich have, and not only for substantially widening the budget? On June 28 a discussion panel rightly stressed the international character of the MGH has today. In 1947 the MGH for the first time elected corresponding fellows, then and ever since from abroad. The flyer for this event shows a list with more than fifty scholars from Europe, the USA and Japan. The main scholarly meeting on June 28 and 29 dealt with the theme Quellenforschung im 21. Jahrhundert [Research on sources in the 21st century].

What laurels does the MGH need? The founders put a crown of oak leafs around the motto in Latin which defies translation, but inspiration and labor of love is the very heart, not only the forests of medieval Germany. Using the older volumes with the introductions in Latin, slowing down your reading speed to digest the wealth of information in the double apparatus of the annotation, checking the Deutsches Archiv for thorough articles, concise information about new works, and the yearly messages of the Zentraldirektion on the progress of editions in preparation, looking at the website for new books in the holdings of the MGH which you might want to use yourself, too, you realize the contributors to the MGH put all their talents into helping to create sure foundations for research, Grundlagenforschung. They challenge you to do your own tasks in a similar dedicated way. Let’s hope the staff and fellows of the MGH can continue to work for the community of scholars in the fields of medieval law and history!

 

Archiving spies in the Early Modern Spanish empire

Cover exhibition catalogue "Espias"While musing about a possible subject for a new post I luckily remembered an announcement about a vital element within the Early Modern Spanish empire. Not only official ambassadors and delegates played an important role in informing governments, spies played an important role to. From July 2018 to July 2019 the Archivo General de Simancas presents the exhibition Espias. Servicios secretos y escritura cifrada en la Monarquiaa Hispánica [Spies. Secret services and enciphered writing in the Spanish monarchy]. The Spanish Empire formed with the Habsburg Empire a European superpower which needed crucial information from other countries, but also wanted to hide their own secrets from others. In this post I will looked at the very substantial downloadable catalogue of this exhibition (54 MB, PDF). In particular the use of encrypted writing made me curious to find out about this exhibition with three main themes: the organization of intelligence services, the spies and encrypted writing.

Archiving at Simancas

A few lines about the Archivo General de Simancas (AGS), ten kilometers from Valladolid, seem in place here. in 1540 emperor Charles V decided to create a new governmental archive, and quickly Simancas was chosen as its location. King Philip II of Spain issued in 1588 a further instruction for the running of this new archive, in fact one of the first Early Modern archival ordinances. Ten years earlier, in 1578, a new building was built for this purpose, yet another pioneering project of this period. The collections can be divided in two major blocks, the collections stemming from the Habsburgian period and those from the period under the rule of the Bourbon dynasty. The collections of the various consejos (councils) for the regions of the Spanish empire are characteristic for the AGS. For the Bourbon period five major series for the secretaries and again five series for other organisms of the state are the key elements. Outside these series you can find the Patronato Real y Mapas, Planos y Dibujos, with maps, drawings and much more.

Cover of the "Guia del investgador" for the AGS

By all means the AGS can look literally as a formidable fortress! Guides such as the Guía del investigador by Angel de la Plaza Bores (4th ed., 1992; online, 5 MB, PDF) help much to overcome your awe. In her article ‘Fuentes para la historia colonial de Brasil en los archivos españoles’ , published in 2009 in the series Guide du chercheur americaniste of the online journal Nuevo Mundo/ Mundos NuevosMaría Belén García López devoted a section to the use of archival record series at the AGS for researching the history of relations between Spain and Portugal with regard to Brazilian history. In English you might want to look at a 2014 contribution about Simancas by Claire Gilbert at Hazine. In 2016 Adolfo Polo y La Borda looked very brief at Simancas and other major Spanish archives in his post ‘Rethinking the Spanish Imperial Archives’ for the series Fresh from the archives of Dissertation Reviews. The Portal de Archivos Españoles (PARES) offers a kind of tree structure which you can navigate to find not only online finding aids but also digitized archival records. At first this might look difficult, but the online guide Taming PARES by Scott Cave and Ashleigh Dean is a must-read to gain access to all riches of PARES. There is a separate website for the digital collection with 7,000 digitized items from the Mapas, Planos y Dibujos of the AGS. A much older guide by William R. Shepard, Guide to the materials for the history of the United States in Spanish archives. (Simancas, the Archivo histórico nacional, and Seville) (Washington, D.C., 1907) can be viewed online in the Hathi Trust Digital Library. German readers might want to look at Marc André Grebe, Akten, Archive, Absolutismus? Das Kronarchiv von Simancas im Herrschaftsgefüge der spanischen Habsburger (1540-1598) (Madrid 2014).

Early Modern spies

Spy report 1572 - AGS

Detail of a deciphered spy report on fortifications in Piedmont, 1572 – AGS, EST LEG 1234-48

In the preface of the exhibition catalogue Julia Rodriguez de Diego explains how the study of the history of spies, their networks and tools is important for at least three main terrains, viz. the growth of absolute monarchies, the history of Early Modern diplomacy and the field of political theories, even its very heart, the building of states and concepts of states and Staatsräson. The first part of the catalogue deals with the organization of espionage at several levels with the Spanish state. In 1497 the pope authorized the Reyes Católicos to send spies into Africa. It seems the Spanish government scarcely needed this spur, but it proved to be a welcome confirmation. In the catalogue you will find discussions of several documents, for example instructions to virreyes (the viceroys of Navarra, Naples and Sicily) and gobernadores (the governors of Milan and Flandes, meaning the Low Countries). The chart with several layers of the Spanish state is very helpful to perceive the impact and role of intelligence services within and for Spain. Juan Velasquez de Velasco, head of the royal intelligence service at the end of the sixteenth century, wrote to the king about the urgent need for coordination of all efforts. As an example of actual reconnaissance by spies you can look at a 1572 report on French fortifications in the Piedmont region with explanations about a map showing details of these fortresses. A number of documents about payments to spies closes the first section of the catalogue. Here and elsewhere you will find images of documents and substantial transcribed parts in the commentaries.

Encrypted message, ca. 1588-1621 - AGS

An encrypted message written on linen, ca. 1588-1621 – AGS, MPD 44-48

The second and largest part of the catalogue deals with actual spies. Spies might be the word we want to use, but agents is a better term. The Spanish agents delivered reports in encrypted script, here an example written on linen using an unknown cipher code. A late sixteenth-century treatise on counter espionage (AGS, EST LEG 601-183) shows insights in the way enemy spies were hindered in achieving foreign objectives. Spies travelled over all Europe. Venice was considered the very spy capital of Europe. Some documents in this exhibition tell us about spies going to the Ottoman empire. The Spanish spies reported also on the roles and fate of spies from other countries. Corsairs were another matter of concern, as in a 1535 report about preparations for an attack at Oran. Rather grim is the story from 1536-1537 in Naples of the interrogation of a person suspected to be a judeoconverso, a converted Jew, and of being a spy for the Ottomans. Some time later he was found drowned in a river. The story of a spy working in Ireland to get information about British industry and inventions is another interesting subject. The contemporary picture of a spy heading this chapter is a nice vignette of the perceived qualities of a spy, working day and night, always watching out as if he had eyes all over his clothes. A paragraph on famous spies is a logical ending for this section of the catalogue.

The uses of encryption

Encrypted negotation report - AGS

An encrypted negotiation report by ambassador Rodriguez Gonzalez de la Puebla, 1498 – AGS, PTR LEG 52-144, fol. 2r

The third part of the catalogue deals with encryption and its uses. The traditional main ways of encryption were substitution or transposition of letters and hiding written messages. For a late fifteenth-century example of a simple cipher code with 2,400 expressions the use of Roman numbers is shown for the names of particular authorities. The code was used by the Spanish ambassador in England who negotiated for the marriage of Catherine of Aragon with Arthur Tudor, the king’s brother. It is good to see the catalogue uses here an article by María del Carmen Sevilla González, ‘Las nupcias de Catalina de Aragón: aspectos jurídicos, políticos y diplomáticos’, Anuario de Historia del Derecho Español 86 (2016) 657-726. Several documents help to give you an idea of what happened behind the screens before king Henry VII agreed in 1504 with the marriage conditions of Catherine’s second marriage in 1503 with the future Henry VIII in a beautiful illuminated document [AGS, PTR LEG 53-1].

In a final paragraph the catalogue shows examples of both general and particular cipher codes. Much of the information given here comes from a recent study by Javier Marcos Rivas, Los dueños del secreto. Espías y espionaje de la Monarquía de los Austrias en el Archivo de Simancas (Madrid 2015). A document from 1564 shows not only a text but also two bars of music [AGS, Estado, leg. 1.1.1.204]. The AGS has in its holdings a manuscript of an unpublished study by Claudio Pérez Gredilla, written in 1899 and 1900 about 200 different cipher codes found in the holdings of this archive [AGS, D/203]. The very last item is really a surprise, a 1936 German Enigma code machine from the holdings of the Museo Histórico Militar de Burgos. This object is really from another age of cryptography. It highlights the fact this catalogue focuses on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

With some regret I have skipped a number of items in this exhibition catalogue, just as i have condensed four centuries of archiving at Simancas. To give just one example, a document with microscopic script from 1586 is presented separately online. You will agree with me the exhibition builds to a climax with the marriages of Catherine of Aragon and the presence of an original Enigma code machine. A particular strength of the catalogue is the ample use of images from archival records combined with partial transcriptions and extensive commentaries. To some extent you can use this catalogue also as an introduction to Spanish palaeography in the Early Modern period. This exhibition fits neatly in the tradition of the AGS for organizing interesting exhibitions, sometimes followed by a virtual exhibit, and publishing accompanying publications. It should invite you to combine your strengths in the Spanish language and the skills of the auxiliary historical sciences such as palaeography to benefit from the wealth of archival records kept at Simancas and in other Spanish archives.

Rembrandt’s private and legal life

Bannere exhibition "Rembrandt Privé"

On December 7, 2018 the exhibition Rembrandt Privé [Rembrandt Privately] opened at the city archives of Amsterdam. In an earlier post on my blog I mentioned the project RemDoc – Rembrandt Documentation which offers a searchable database with images, transcriptions and many English translations of seventeenth-century documents pertaining to Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). The exhibit show documents held at the Stadsarchief Amsterdam, the largest municipal archive in the Netherlands, some original works by Rembrandt, a number of maps and the chance to gain access to augmented reality around the documents using a tablet. The legal nature of many documents will soon become clear in this post.

Stories of love, art and money

I started to admire Rembrandt already as a child. His paintings, drawings and etchings are so much alive with people. Paintings from the Dutch Golden Age helped shaping my perceptions of the seventeenth century. I was soon aware of the many decisive turns in Rembrandt’s life. The way he portrayed people both in sorrow and joy, and the dark hours of his own life offered a healthy antidote to viewing the Dutch Republic in too much sunlight. The catalogue of the major Rembrandt exposition in Amsterdam in 1969 was a book I have seen many times. It often referred to historical documents about Rembrandt and his works.

The building of the Stadsarcheif Amsterdam

The Stadsarchief Amsterdam at the Vijzelstraat in the former bank building designed by K.P.C. de Bazel

Reading about somebody in a book is one thing, seeing the works of an artist in museums adds much to it, but somehow having the documents in front of you stirs the imagination even more. The Rembrandt Documentation project of the Huygens Institute in Amsterdam and the Radboud University Nijmegen gives you online access to many thousand documents. There was an older work, Die Urkunden über Rembrandt (1575-1721) by C. Hofstede de Groot (The Hague 1906; online, Universität Heidelberg) with transcriptions and commentaries for nearly 500 documents, followed by W.L. Strauss and M. van der Meulen, The Rembrandt Documents (New York 1979) and M. Roscam Abbing, Rembrandt 2006, II: New Rembrandt Documents (Leiden 2006). The online project has a wider time range, 1424 to 1799, and offers much more documents, and also references about Rembrandt in art literature. Sometimes Hofstede de Groot did not record texts completely. Commentaries can be very different and convincing explanations no longer missing. An example: Hofstede de Groot gave a large extract from an attestatio de vita from July 26, 1632 (no. 25, p. 24-25; RemDoc, no. 4399) made by a notary inquiring about Rembrandt’s health, but the reason for this inquiry was not clear to Hofstede de Groot. In 1979 it became clear it had to do with a rent subscribed to by one hundred citizens with the stipulation the full sum would be paid back to the longest living subscriber.

An enlarged map of Amsterdam and two documents

The exhibit at the city archive shows a selection of documents around a number of themes and events in Rembrandt’s life. Often two documents are shown, with either a print next to them or an image of a painting in the background, most of them from the collections of the Rijksmuseum and the Rembrandthuis. With the tablet you can focus on a document and start a short podcast about the document or documents. Often you will see a seventeenth-century map in the background showing you the exact location in the inner city of Amsterdam. The image to the left centers on a document about the execution of Elsje Christiaens, a Danish servant convicted for murder hanging at the display gallows in 1664 on the other side of the IJ, the estuary to the north of Amsterdam. Rembrandt often made sketches in this region. He drawed this young woman twice.

The exhibition shows some familiar documents, and although I had already some expectations, the legal nature of many documents is indeed striking. To mention just a few of them, the betrothal of Rembrandt and his first wife Saskia van Uijlenburgh in 1634, an ecclesiastical procedure about his later mistress Geertje, some testaments, the inventory of his bankruptcy in 1656, and the inventory of his house after his death in 1669 are all legal documents.

The 1669 inventory - Amsterdam, Stadsarchief

A page from the 1669 inventory – Amsterdam, Stadsarchief, Archief Notarissen, subseries 113, Gerrit Steeman, inv.no. 2625C

The death-bed inventory of Rembrandt’s house in 1669 is rather special. It belongs to documents more or less damaged by the 1762 fire in the city hall. Several documents have now been restored and digitized. Until now the transcriptions of this document in RemDoc (no. 13471; Hofstede de Groot, no. 306) could only be incomplete. It is a reminder that a historical state of affairs can change indeed. Illegible or missing words can become clear. In the case mentioned above a document which seemed inexplicable can be studied anew, placed in a context and yield new information. The readability of old Dutch documents was the theme in a post I wrote earlier in 2018. I proposed to everyone wanting to learn online to decipher Dutch documents from the seventeenth century to start with the documents about Rembrandt. As an example I showed an image of an obligation Rembrandt had got into for the purchase in 1639 of his house in the Sint Anthoniebreesteeg for which he had failed in 1653 to pay four years of interest (RemDoc no. 4628). Even if not for all documents images and an English translation is available, a fair number of archival records can be used to gain also palaeographical skills.

Among the archival records on display I want to single out two documents. The first is a complaint from the Portuguese merchant Diego d’Andrada in 1654 about a portrait of a young lady Rembrandt had made for him (RemDoc, no. 1661) with clauses about the way Rembrandt was going to act to fulfill the wishes in accordance with the regulations of the painters guild.

Documents about the black community in Rembrandt's Amsterdam

The second document involved also the presence of Portuguese merchants in Amsterdam, the burial of Francisco d’Angola in 1659 who had lived in the same street with Selijelij Krablije. Rembrandt could meet in the very street where he lived black people who lived as servants in the houses of Portuguese merchants. In Amsterdam it was forbidden to have slaves, but one can assume in some cases such servants were in fact slaves. Amsterdam had become in the seventeenth century one of Europe’s most important financial and trade centers. You might encounter anyone and anything, and thus Rembrandt’s world stretched far beyond Holland.

More archival records

The Stadsarchief Amsterdam is rightly famous for its digitization service. Some 30 million images of archival records are currently available online. Indexes exist for a steadily growing number of record series, and in most cases they lead you to digital images, too. The ondertrouwregisters (betrothal registers) are probably the most praised record series of the municipal archive, because uniquely for this kind of resource the Amsterdam records often contain additional information about the partners, their professions, origin and family.

Logo Alle Amsterdamse Akten

In 1906 Hofstede de Groot noted in the acknowledgements he had not used himself the notarial registers of Amsterdam, because this rich resource had not yet been adequately inventoried. He had mostly to rely on the transcriptions and editions of the people who had gained access to them thanks to the guidance of archivists. It is one thing to have now at your computer screen full access to digitized images of these registers using the finding aid (toegang 5075), but another thing to find quickly relevant acts. Here the crowdsourcing project Alle Amsterdamse Akten steps in which aims to digitize and create indexes for a staggering volume of notarial registers, good for 3,5 linear kilometer in 700 cupboards. The project overview gives a current number of nearly six million digitized pages, some 680 volunteers at the Dutch transcribing platform Vele Handen [Many Hands] and 267,000 documents. There are more than ten thousand registers from 731 notaries in the Early Modern period. The website contains special dossiers about six themes, among them Rembrandt and also slavery with highlights among the notarial acts, some of them newly found, others already known.

Search screen Alle Amsterdamse Akten

The search screen of Alle Amsterdamse Akten

After free registration you can start searching in the notarial registers from Amsterdam at the website Notarieel Archief Amsterdam. You can search for descriptions, type of act, first names and surnames for two persons, location, day, month and year, or choose a particular notary. When searching for Rembrandt van Rhijn you will immediately get a choice of variant spellings in a dropdown menu, both for Rembran(d)(t) and R(h)ijn. At this point I can no longer hide the fact that the exhibit can be visited in a Dutch and English version, but the other websites of the Stadsarchief Amsterdam are completely in Dutch. The press kit for the exhibit in four languages and the display texts for the documents are the exceptions, but the tablet scripts and transcriptions are only available online in Dutch. There is a strong case to add at least a search interface in one other language. It is some solace to be able to download the 1998 repertory of notaries in Amsterdam between 1524 and 1810 by A.J. Bosma. Earlier on an overview had been created of more than 5000 notarial acts in cases of gross avery between 1700 and 1810, damage to ships in emergency situations, an important resource next to an index on these cases of maritime law heard by a special court. I wrote a paragraph about these verdicts in an earlier post.

Rembrandt and Vermeer in documents

It seems wise to see Rembrandt not in isolation. John Michael Montias (1928-2005) was an economic historian who became an art historian focusing on the social context of art. He found and transcribed lots of Early Modern probate inventories mentioning works of art which can be searched in the Montias database of the Frick Museum, New York. The Meertens Institute for Dutch Ethnology has created the Boedelbank, a database with Dutch probate inventories from four regions seen as a resource for the history of material culture. In 1989 Montias published Vermeer and his milieu. A web of social history, translated into Dutch as Vermeer en zijn milieu (Amsterdam 1993). Over the years Montias had traced some 450 documents in seventeen Dutch and Belgian archives – not only in Delft! – with direct and indirect about information about Vermeer, his family and people associated with him. The Dutch edition contains as an appendix (pp. 331-403) an enlarged version of the list of documents with a number of full transcriptions. The number of documents for Vermeer is definitely lower than for Rembrandt. Even if such documents do not allow for strict conclusions about the content of his art works, they enormously raise the awareness about the multiple contexts of Dutch art in the seventeenth century.

In the face of an ocean of specialized art literature about Rembrandt and Vermeer the point I liked to make here is not only the legal nature of many archival records in the Amsterdam exhibition, but also the presence of many other persons in these documents. Rembrandt and Vermeer were supreme masters in portraying people who you seem to know and understand in an uncanny way. The Dutch historian Geert Mak wrote a book about the Six family [De levens van Jan Six. Een familiegeschiedenis, 2016; The many lives of Jan Six. A portrait of an Amsterdam dynasty, 2017], a merchant dynasty with Jan Six at its very heart, a friend of Rembrandt, portrayed twice by him. The painting is still owned by his descendants. Viewing someone in his familiar surroundings or in the streets of his hometown is also a metaphor for viewing law not as an isolated element of society, but vitally connected to its utmost veins. Finding and recreating such connections is surely challenging, but searching for a subject in vivo is more rewarding and revealing than staying content with results in a supposedly detached laboratory. At the end of 2018 I would almost say: Keep calm and study legal history!

Rembrandt Privé [Rembrandt Privately] – Stadsarchief Amsterdam, Vijzelstraat 32, Amsterdam – December 7, 2018 until April 7, 2019

Deciphering letters about slavery and abolition

Start screen Anti-Slavery Manuscripts

Easy access has become a byword not only for creating online versions of sources, but also for transcribing important source collections as part of efforts to bring them literally better into view for both scholars and the general public. The participants of transcribing and indexing projects certainly stand out from the crowd. Recently Boston Public Library partnered with the Zooniverse crowdsourcing program for a project concerning nineteenth-century letters about abolition and slavery. The Anti-Slavery Manuscripts was launched on January 23, 2018. The collection contains some 40,000 pieces from the 1830’s to the late 1860’s, after the Civil War, with at its heart documents and letters donated by the family of William Lloyd Garrison. Some 12,000 items in the collection have been digitized at Digital Commonwealth, the digital platform for cultural heritage collections in Massachusetts. Nearly 2,200 images have been selected for the first phase of this project. One of the themes in this collection is the role of women in the struggle for abolition. Deciphering these resources can at times be difficult, and it seems right to look here also at palaeography in the United States.

In my discussion of the project for these manuscripts I will look also at other crowdsourcing transcription projects. My search for American palaeography was not as straightforward as you might expect.

A community around abolition

At the start I want to stress the fact this project of Boston Public Library and Zooniverse runs smoothly. Almost four thousand volunteers have registered to transcribe letters, and the progress is good. You can follow the project on a special blog of the Boston Public Library. Besides the letters in the collection there are also pamphlets, broadsides, newspapers, books and realia. If the letters show us a more intimate side of the abolitionist movement, the newspaper The Liberator (1831-1866) founded by William Lloyd Garrison might aptly be named the motor and public actor of the movement. Interestingly, in her blog post about the history of The LIberator Kelsey Gustin draws attention to the changes in the masthead of this weekly published newspaper. These images depict not only black and white people, but also use art to convey at least a part of the inspiration behind the movement.

Only issues for the years 1831-1842 and 1861-1862 of The Liberator have been digitized at Digital Commonwealth. You can find information about more complete versions of this Boston newspaper in licensed digital collections in the online database of the International Coalition On Newspapers (ICON), hosted by the Center for Research Libraries, Chicago. There are complete digitized runs in open access at Fair Use and The Liberator Files.

The collection at Boston Public Library contains materials from several abolitionist societies, among them the Female Anti-Slavery Society. Unity about opposition to slavery did not take away the very issue of the participation of women and women’s rights in general, and thus these matters, too, appear in the letters. The correspondence preserved here come from both the United States and the United Kingdom.

Transcribing the letters

Work screen of the Anti-Slavery Manuscripts

Work screen of the Anti-Slavery Manuscripts

The 12,000 letters to be transcribed will be released in five sets, mostly in chronological order. There is a rather important blog post by Samantha Blickhan (IMLS) on the divisions of the five sets and decisions to exclude a number of letters. Some of them have already been published in critical editions, in particular those of William Lloyd Garrison and Charles Sumner. In one case, the Ziba B. Oakes Papers, bring a series of letters by a slave trader. The first set now visible contains the oldest letters from 1800 to 1839.

You have to register in order to participate in the project, but anyway when you click on Transcribe in the menu bar you will view the tutorial explaining the way you enter your results. On the right there is a toolbar for navigation. In the top left corner you can enlarge or scale down the image, or go to other pages of a document. The Field Guide gives practical guidance to decipher letter forms and other elements of writing, and instructions to present such elements consistently and correctly in your transcription. After finishing a piece or when you have questions you might want to visit the forum at Talk for news, frequently asked questions, and for discussions about matters presented by the participants. Zooniverse Team member @GrifftinTranscribes answers questions as a specialist in nineteenth-century handwriting.

Screen shot Field Guide

When you notice you can open the Tutorial whenever you click on Transcribe in the menu bar or using the button to the left of the images, you would expect the same navigation for the Field Guide. In fact both elements become visible as pop-up-only screens. I was not able to detect their exact web addresses.Screenshot explanation on abbreviations

The Field Guide deals with fourteen subjects. The team behind the Anti-Slavery Manuscripts takes no risks and instructs participants explicitly to leave abbreviations as they are found in the letters. For further information they point to a web page of the National Archives and Records Administration for their projects under its Citizen Archivists umbrella. However helpful in many ways, this page does not contain every element of a full-grown palaeographical manual. When you visit the History Hub, a support community concerning American history managed by the NARA, you will encounter in the user forums a lot of very useful communities, including one for legislative records, but on this platform questions about handwriting have not yet been given a corner of its own.

An endearing and lively blog post about the Anti-Slavery Manuscripts has been written by Lisa Gilbert, an instructor who reports on the experience of 8th graders (13 tot 14 years old) who tried to read a letter from the collection in Boston. Line after line they struggled to understand the text. The struggle helped the teenagers to get an idea of what it meant to fight for abolition or for any political idea. Awareness of the fact how many questions you can ask from a single document was another thing becoming clear.

The uses of palaeography

If historians had read documents exclusively by fighting their way through original documents, instead of learning how to deal with all kind of scripts, not just from one century or in a single document genre, little could have been accomplished. The study of old scripts and their context is one of the earliest historical auxiliary sciences. Manuals and guides, including classic books on forms of abbreviations, exist in fair numbers. Since February 2017 I have tried to find online tutorials for palaeography and to create a commented overview of them on my legal history website Rechtshistorie. Sometimes it took quite an effort to find a tutorial or at least a digital version of a recent guide, in other cases it was almost a question of choosing the best. One of the things I spotted was a division in the United States and the United Kingdom between manuals aiming at reading genealogical records, and tutorials dealing with other historical records. The United Kingdom is well served with a large number of tutorials for dealing with either manuscripts or archival records, with also at least three websites for Scottish resources, but there seem to be few online tutorials for American palaeography.

You will find sources in American history written in many languages, and certainly not only European. For Southern states you must reckon with Spanish and French resources. The difficulty to read Dutch script from the Early Modern period in archival sources concerning New York has been the subject here of a post in 2015 about the transcriptions and editions of these invaluable materials. For the history of Pennsylvania sources written in German are important. It can be most useful to rely on palaeographical guidance for Early Modern records in these languages, even when they deal more specifically with records written or still held in Spain, France, Germany or the Low Countries. It can be wise to look at resources for Canada, too, but in fact my harvest for Canada is until now distinctly meagre.

Let’s look at these online resources aiming specifically at the United States and Canada. For Canadian history I have not yet found a resource which deserves to be recognized as a tutorial. The only resource I found for Canada after repeated searches is a contribution by Leah Grandy for Early Canadiana, aptly called ‘Skills for historians of the future: palaeography’, and her two posts on palaeography (here the second) at the blog of The Loyalist Collection, University of New Brunswick. There is a Study Guide Colonial Handwriting, created in connection with the Indian Converts Digital Collection, Reed College, Portland, Oregon. The study guide accompanies a digitized version of a 1727 book on Indian converts. You can test your knowledge of Early Modern handwriting with an online tool of Reed College, Early American Handwriting. DoHistory has created How to read 18th century British handwriting, a companion to Martha Ballard’s diary for the years 1785-1812 [Augusta, ME, Maine State Library, ms. B B 189]. The State Archives of North Carolina in Raleigh have published three consecutive blog posts, What Does That Say? Deciphering the handwritten records of Early America. The posts present colonial documents. They provide also a bibliography and links to digitized works. Perhaps the most surprising tutorial comes from the Smithsonian Institution. Reading Colonial Handwriting is part of the section Just for Kids! of the virtual exhibition Out of the mails created by the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. Two of the manuals mentioned in this paragraph deal only with eighteenth-century documents. To say the least, American history covers by all means a much longer period.

The need for an online tutorial for American palaeography was the subject of a short blog post by Ricc Ferrante on the blog of the Smithsonian Institution Archives, ‘Is there a place for palaeography in the archives?’ (January 23, 2018), incidentally also the day the Boston Public Library launched its project. The Smithsonian Institution Archives deal with the history of this research organization with many branches. The SI Archives support also the Smithsonian Digital Volunteers and its transcription center. It provides general tips for transcribing, and also more specific instructions for transcribing historical documents, and eight other sets of guidelines, for example for transcribing the papers of the Freedmen’s Bureau which dealt with abandoned properties after 1865 in the aftermath of the Civil War. Just as the NARA for Citizen Archivists the Smithsonian Institution provides substantial transcription guidance. Explaining such rules is definitely important, but they do not substitute palaeographical guidance.

Ferrante did not find quickly an online palaeographical manual for American documents, and thus he choose some of the websites mentioned in the fine overview in the Folgerpedia of online resources for English palaeography. The quality of this overview is excellent, but it can suggest no online tutorials for American handwriting exist. Ferrante started his search for an online manual when he tried to read a handwritten journal from the mid-1840’s. He signals also the difficulty to read old cursive scripts for those who have not received any instruction in cursive writing, and he hesitantly admits a place for palaeography for historical periods after the Middle Ages.

The development of palaeography as an auxiliary historical science started mainly for dealing with medieval documents and manuscripts, but it widened its territory soon. Historians can choose to study only printed – or typed – resources, especially for modern history. However, we know how important it is to use letters and diaries, drawings, poems and daily notes – scribbled or in capitals – from the Civil War, First World War, the Depression Era, the New Deal or the Second World War.  These sources help to give us vivid details in order to understand these periods better or to raise questions about our understanding and views. In official records, too, we can encounter handwritten elements. In my training as a historian following courses in palaeography was optional. I still remember the collective sigh of satisfaction after our first lessons, because getting the skills to read original documents felt immensely practical.

The absence of online tutorials covering several periods of American history does not mean nothing can be done. In particular the series Script Tutorials of the Brigham Young University helps you reading texts in seven languages, but the focus is clearly on genealogical records. However, at some point you will want to consult other resources genres, too. Tax registers and military records contain valuable information about your ancestors, and it would be a pity if you are unable to read them by lack of some necessary skills which can be taught and learned without too much effort. Apart from universities archives often offer courses.

Zooniverse has several projects concerning or touching American history, for example on African-American Civil War soldiers, and The American Soldier about the aftermath of the Second World War. Projects on the League of Nations in the digital age and concerning coded information during the Civil War are currently paused. For these telegrams you can benefit from a blog post with the title ‘Now I Know My (19th-Century) ABCs’ by Mario Einaudi (Huntington Library). Of course other crowd transcription projects exist. A cursory look at the overview of such projects provided by the American Historical Association should suffice you of their widespread occurrence.

I could find little about palaeography on the website of the AHA and the Society of American Archivists (SAA). The useful and concise AHA Guide to Archival Research has a short paragraph about the need for palaeographical skills, with some lines worth quoting: “Get ready to read script. Do not be surprised when 15th-century documents are not typed”. This piece of advice is found typically in the section on research abroad, but you will read older scripts already when dealing with the colonial period. The fact this guide is also downloadable with the title Research Trip Tips is telling. Skills and competence in dealing with unfamiliar scripts is only implicitly reckoned among the capability to interpret historical records in the 2005 AHA report about essential skills for the MA in history degree. The SAA certainly brings into view the variety of skills archivists do need today.

When you search at the website of the SAA and in The American Archivist (AA) you will find palaeography in many cases associated with medieval and European sources, but you might want to read articles such as Laetitia Yeandle, ‘The evolution of American handwriting in the English-speaking colonies’, AA 43 (1980) 294-311, and Alfred E. Lemmon, ‘The archival legacy of Spanish Louisiana colonial records’, AA 55 (1992) 142-155. Laura Schmidt’s fine guide Using Archives: A guide to effective research – also downloadable (PDF) – mentions reading skills in particular in a paragraph about scheduling time for the unexpected. Sometimes my memory comes back of a visit to an archive more than thirty years ago where I found myself dumbfounded by a document in front of me. I was unable to even start an attempt to decipher it. Online tutorials and many digital collections with archival records can provide you with the same shock which should make you think and reconsider your abilities.

In 2016 The Junto: A group blog on Early American History, an initiative of young historians, brought Archives around the Atlantic, a series of contributions on doing research in archives and libraries in Spain, France, the United Kingdom and the United States. Reading skills figure in some of the posts, but seldom as a central or essential skill. The Dutch period of the East Coast has been completely overlooked in this series. Sometimes there is a hint to use the library of an archive to consult relevant literature and manuals. I would agree in principle that you should acquire knowledge of the nation’s palaeography you will encounter probably most times in your particular field of Early American history, but there will be moments when you have to cross linguistic and palaeographical borders. Some areas changed from Spanish into French possession. For Canada you will need both French and English palaeography.

American palaeography, a distinct field

In this post we made a journey from a very particular subject, sources concerning the abolition movement, to sources for American history more generally. Perhaps trained historians are those who generally will less often need online tutorials in their professional life, but others do not benefit from their head start. Relying solely on palaeography from one country ignores the fact migrants to the United States came from many countries, and not only in those states known during the first half of the nineteenth century as The Territories. If people increasingly do not any longer learn cursive writing, any form of training to read cursive scripts becomes necessary. It is paradoxical to create exhaustive transcription guides to ensure enhanced fidelity for editions, and at the same time to assume everything is readable without preparation or instructions. The need for a distinct palaeographical approach of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries will steadily grow.

In my opinion Zooniverse is in the position to help creating rather quickly a basic palaeographical manual for American history using both the Field Guide of the Anti-Slavery Manuscripts and the blog post of Mario Einaudi created for Decoding the Civil War. If they consider themselves unable to achieve this, a partnership with the Smithsonian Institution’s transcription center is one of the logical directions to take. Surely one or more a state archives, university libraries or major research libraries such as the BPL, the Newberry Library in Chicago or the Huntington Library are capable of combining forces to create it, and perhaps add materials for advanced needs. It will help not only the volunteers in transcription projects, but anyone interested in American history and able to view the massive digital collections with images of American handwritten documents. Of course there are classic printed guides such as Kip Sperry’s Reading Early American handwriting (Baltimore, MD, 1998) and Harriet Stryker-Rodda, Understanding colonial handwriting (Baltimore, MD, 1986), but there is room for online manuals, too.

Doing history calls for many skills. When you cannot readily start deciphering written records because you do not have reading skills, you are unable to interpret them and use them in your research. Others might help you to read archival records in some cases, but not always. Palaeographical skills can be decisive for the success of your visit to a local archive or to an archive which you can only reach after a voyage. Let reading skills accompany your historical voyages, be they virtual travels at your computer screen, reading books with images of written documents and manuscripts or visiting archives to use historical records!

Suriname’s slavery registers unbound

Start screen slavery regisyers, Nationaal Archief, Suriname

On July 1, 1863 slavery was officially abolished in Suriname. A ten-year transitional period followed during which former slave owners received a monetary compensation for each former slave. Since many years people originally coming from Suriname celebrate in The Netherlands on July 1 the feast of Keti Koti, “The Breaking of the Chains”. It is only fitting that last week the digital version of slave registers kept between 1830 and 1863, now hold by the Nationaal Archief of Suriname (NAS) in Paramaribo, was launched by a number of institutions led by Coen van Galen at the Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen and Maurits Hassankhan at the Anton de Kom Universiteit van Suriname, with support from the Dutch National Archives in The Hague.

Last year I reported here on the project to move a number of archival collections concerning the history of Suriname from the Dutch Nationaal Archief to the NAS, and to digitize also a number of these collections. Collections with relevancy to legal history figure large among them. The digitization of the slavery registers is a key element completing the efforts for digital access and conservation, indexing the registers and making them much more accessible for researchers and the general public worldwide. In this post I will look at these registers and their online presence.

A crowdsourcing project

Logo crowdsourcing project "Maak de Surinaamse slavenregisters openbaar"In January 2017 the project for indexation and digitization of these slavery registers started, just after the transfer of important archival collections from The Hague to Paramaribo. A campaign with the slogan Maak de Surinaamse slavenregister openbaar, “Make the Surinam slavery registers public”, proved effective. Some 600 people donated money for the project, and some 400 volunteers helped indexing the registers. To put the record straight, anyone could and can come to these archives to gain access to the original volumes, provided their material state is not too fragile. It is safe to assume that you need to come with good arguments to touch them now they can be consulted online. The Dutch National Archives did already provide public access. The operation to bring archival collections back to Suriname created a more urgent need for conservation and digitization.

The digitized registers now in Paramaribo [NAS, toegang (finding aid) 16, inv.nrs. 1-43] can be accessed using an index form shown above. On purpose the NAS has not placed these registers among its forty digitized archival collections. The Dutch National Archives provide also online access to the slavery registers among its ever-growing set of online indexes. You can download the index in its entirety (4,2 MB, zipped file). At this point something becomes clear when you look at the URL of this file, a web address in The Netherlands at the search portal Ga het NA of the Nationaal Archief in The Hague. The search form of this digital resource at both archives is almost, but not completely identical.

Accessing the slavery registers

Logo Dutch Nationaal Archief, The Hague

You can use either a simple search form (Eenvoudig zoeken) with three fields, one for a free text search and two fields for setting a period, or go to Uitgebreid (Advanced search) with more fields. In the second mode there are additional fields from the slave name, the name of the mother, and the name of the slave owner. You can click on the search results in order to get both the information on a person, including also gender, references to the registers and the type of register – with its inventory and page number – and an image of the page in question. It is possible to zoom in at will to any image. Each scan has an individual URL, a URL from my country when viewing individual results, meaning there is one single database behind the two versions. By clicking on the field name in the results you can change their order. You will find either the names of owners or the name of the plantation and its location.

NAS, series 16, no. 34, fol. 2667

It is not my purpose to single out here any defects and omissions, but a few things are very visible. First of all the version hosted in The Hague contains additional information which is not or not yet provided at the website of the NAS. The section Achtergrond (Background) informs you about the information given in the search fields, with a second page about slavery in Suriname and the introduction of slavery registers and their survival. There are important losses, not in the least some registers of slaves owned by the Dutch colonial government. In the registers mutations such as birth and death, acquisitions and sales should be written down. A third page on Gebruik (Use) contains instruction on the use of the indexes and the interpretation of results, and also a handy list of common abbreviations in the registers. The other pages contain a colophon about the project and the user license (CC-BY-SA 3.0 NL).

A second thing to note is the incomplete translations in the English version of the search form. Even the simple search form has not yet been translated completely. The field names in the results screen have not been translated. A much sillier thing becomes also visible: In cases where there is no gender information, the volunteers entered the word Leeg (Empty). I suppose there are more concise and effective ways to convey the fact that no data have been entered in a particular field.

Viewing the context

Using to a large extent at this moment only Dutch for this project is not a particular lucky thing, and you can even extend this to the project website. Translations in languages such as English and Sranantongo are not just welcome, they are simply needed to really open this resource to people worldwide with interest in Caribbean history, the history of slavery or Dutch colonial history. For any project on Dutch colonial history in the East Indies contemplating translations into English and/or Bahasa Indonesia is luckily a natural thing. The project team states flatly these registers are a worldwide unique resource, the only series of its kind. On the project website some further, rather important explanations about the actual state of the slavery registers are offered. It appears no general index to the series existed. Some registers could be consulted on microfiches, but without one or more indexes searching would mean wandering in a jungle without much hope for any results. The thing to note here is that only in 2017 the need for an index was perceived as sufficiently urgent to start a project to deal with this sorry situation. Earlier on having only severely hampered access seems not to have led to constructive action. Van Galen and Hassankhan rightly stress the importance of the slavery registers for not only genealogical research, but as a key resource to connect with the manumission registers, neighbourhood registers of the city Paramaribo and other sources for Suriname’s history during the nineteenth century. The historic context and the slavery registers can enrich the information contained in them in both directions.

Surely we need to thank Coen van Galen and Maurits Hassankhan and the army of volunteers who succeeded in getting their tasks completed in time. Van Galen and Hassankhan provide on the project website a very useful page with four PDF’s with information that should immediately be included on the websites of  both versions of the online index. The project leaders provide a list with the names of plantations and other Dutch posts in 1834 (530 kB), a list with the names of free people in Paramaribo in 1846 (2,2 MB), both created by Huub van Helvoort, a list with first names of enslaved people on a number of plantations (70 kB), and even a list of letter forms, letter combinations and some Dutch words in nineteenth-century Dutch script (650 kB). It is good to see some basic historical skills are not forgotten! However, to my disbelief I did not find on the project website the URL of the index, not even after a few days… The slogan Open the slavery registers seems to have been at least temporarily forgotten by the web team. More down to earth, the current summer heat in my country, the gulf of enthusiasm about the launch, and the very end of the academic year created perfect excuses for forgetting to open literally the doors to the final results of the project also at the project website. The absence of news items from June and July 2018 is another indication for the sleeping state of the project website.

Such omissions and minor problems can be fixed quickly. I would urge anyone involved with this project to proceed as soon as possible with distributing lacking information to both versions and completing the translations. This succesful project well deserves this last effort to remove the barriers and chains which hindered easy access and practical use. The slavery registers of Suriname deserve interest from many corners.

A postscript

The uniqueness of these slave registers should be considered in the light of the presence of similar registers held at the Nationaal Archief Curaçao (finding aid 005, Archief Koloniale Overheid, nos. 1-1070).

Deciphering texts and Dutch legal history

Historians sometimes dream just as much as anyone else of immediate and intimate contact with the past. Museums nowadays create exhibitions and permanent rooms where often the experience of artefacts and objects is as important as the objects themselves. Historical documents can work as a time capsule, in particular when you have letters or diaries in front of you. Within several projects around the Prize Papers of the High Court of Admiralty held at the National Archives, Kew, letters take pride of place. Digitization projects have helped to approach them more directly than ever before. However, scholars sometimes sigh in front of historic Dutch handwriting. Is there any help in English for those wanting to decipher and study Dutch materials from the medieval or Early Modern period? In this post I would like to look at a number of online tutorials and guides, in order to compare their qualities, and to address also some of the difficulties you encounter. Two online projects prompted me to look here at Dutch palaeography and to search for online assistance in English.

The challenge of Dutch handwriting

A number of posts at my blog deal with old Dutch documents. I have looked here both at the Dutch letters surviving the centuries within the Prize Papers, and at projects dealing with other series within the archive of the High Court of Admiralty. In 2017 I looked at the 1623 Amboyna conspiracy trial with several archival records in Dutch with transcriptions and translations into English. Faithful readers might remember my summer posting about the colonial records of New Netherland in New York. Part of the success to edit and digitized these records was the labor of several archivists and historians to transcribe these records. Some of these transcriptions proved to be crucial when a fire in 1911 hit the building of the State Library of New York destroying a substantial number of these Early Modern archival materials.

In 2017 the department of Dutch Studies at Berkeley finished a project to publish transcribed Dutch colonial records in the Sluiter Collection of the Bancroft Library. Engel Sluiter donated his transcriptions made in Europe of Dutch archival records in 1996 to this library. You can download a PDF (3 MB) with a list of these materials prepared by Julie van der Horst. Seven boxes contain materials dealing with the New Netherland implantation. In this case the typed transcriptions were OCR-ed and checked by Julie van der Horst who is fluent in Dutch. Knowledge of Dutch was in this case more important than palaeographical skills.

The only tutorial for Dutch palaeography in English will be launched soon at the Script Tutorial of the Brigham Young University. It will appear in an English and Dutch version. The second project shows not only original documents in Dutch, but also transcriptions and for a number of them English translations. The transcriptions of a key document are shown line for line below snippets of the original record, thus approaching the qualities of a palaeographical tutorial. In fact I encountered the website because of the main resource, the journal of Hendrick Hamel (1630-1692). Hamel sailed in 1653 with the Dutch vessel De Sperwer from Batavia (Djakarta) on Java with the Dutch settlement at Deshima in Japan as final destination, but he ended in Korea after a shipwreck. He was arrested and lived for thirteen years as a prisoner in Korea. In 1666 he could escape with seven shipmates to Japan. Back in Java he wrote his report, which was first published in 1668 and quickly translated.

Hamel’s report is not a ship journal kept by the captain. For two centuries it was almost the only European eyewitness account of Korea. The contemporary translations contained numerous mistakes which were taken over at face value, without much inclination to go back to the original texts. Henny Savenije, a Dutchman living in South Korea, wrote with Jet Quadekker a book about Hendrick Hamel with a new edition of the Dutch text, Het journaal van Hendrick Hamel : de verbazingwekkende lotgevallen van Hendrick Hamel en andere schipbreukelingen van het VOC-schip de Sperwer in Korea (1653-1666) (Rotterdam 2003). On his website he presents a set of materials surrounding Hamel’s journal, with images of archival records, transcriptions in Dutch and English translations. For clarity’s sake you can find here an English translation of Hamel’s report about Korea which is actually quite brief.

Hamel's journal in the 1920 edition

Hamel’s journal in the 1920 edition by B. Hoetink – image The Memory of The Netherlands

I would like to focus here on the archival records at Savenije’s website and their treatment. The presentation, transcriptions and translation of Hamel’s report are the core of this website. The report is mainly written in a very fluent hand using a large script taking 51 pages of a register, referred to as “Nationaal Archief, nr. 1265”. If you look at the line-by-line transcription – here fol. 1155r – you can see for yourself the accessibility of this script. However fluent its look-and-feel, it nevertheless poses a challenge when you are used to English handwriting. In the modern edition of the Dutch text by B. Hoetink an image of the first page of the journal is included [Verhaal van het vergaan van het jacht De Sperwer (…) (The Hague 1920; Werken uitgegeven door de Linschoten-Vereeniging, 16)]. Hoetink’s edition is available online at The Memory of The Netherlands and in the Digitale Bibliotheek der Nederlandse Letteren (text-only).

Title page of Hamel's journal, Rotterdam 1668

Title page of Hamel’s report in the edition Rotterdam 1668 – copy Oxford University

I had intended to go quickly to the other Dutch records at Savenije’s website, but unfortunately navigating this site is not straightforward. It took me some time to retrace the page with images. The central page where you can choose other records is presented as an appendix (bijlagen) in spite of its central function. However, you must applaud the presence of both English and Dutch versions, but you become acutely aware of the difference between using the original or depending on translations with all their qualities or deficiencies. Savenije gives a list of seventeenth century Dutch editions and translations, and also modern editions. It is strange he does not recognize the Linschoten Vereeniging as the Dutch pendant to the Hakluyt Society, both societies which promote modern editions of Early Modern travel accounts.

A second matter which deserves attention is the incomplete reference to the source. The Dutch National Archives at The Hague are home to 100 kilometer of archival records. For the Dutch East India Company, the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), you can use finding aid 1.04.02. No. 1265 is described as “1668 FFFF. Vierde boek: Batavia’s ingekomen brievenboek, deel II 1668”, a register of incoming letters at Batavia for 1668. Alas there are no digital scans of this register. You will recognize the need for a proper reference when you see the wealth of archival collections worldwide in the overview of relevant collections for the VOC at the TANAP portal. If you search for Sperwer in the TANAP database of VOC records you will get three results. Two of them refer to the register no. 1265, entered both for 1653 and 1666, as “Journael gericht aenden Ed. heer gouverneur generael Joan Maetsuijcker en d’Ed. heeren raaden van Nederlants India vant geene de overgebleven officieren ende matroosen vant jacht de Sperwer ‘t zedert 16 Augustij anno 1653 dat tselve jacht aan ‘t Quelpaerts Eijland hebben verlooren tot den 14 September anno 1666 dat met haer 8 ontvlught ende tot Nangasackij in Japan aangecomen zijn; int selve rijck van Coree is wedervaren mitsgaders den ommeganck van die natie ende gelegentheijt van ‘t land”, a report written for governor Joan Maetsuijcker and the council of the Dutch Indies by the remaining officers and men of the yacht Sperwer, how they were shipwrecked and escaped to Japan, and their notes on the kingdom of Korea, to be found on the pages – in fact folia! – 1155-1179. You can guess I would like to have precise references for any document for which Savenije has created a page with the Dutch text and an English translation, for example a notice from 1666 in the daily register of the Dutch settlement Deshima, an island in the harbor of Nagasaki. During two centuries it was virtually the only point of direct contact between Japan and Europe. Incidentally Savenije’s large pictures of the 1668 register are not sharp enough to be usable, but luckily those smaller selections you will see with the transcription are most readable.

The thing to note here for legal historians is the way Hamel was treated in Korea, his position with the Dutch in Deshima, and the procedures of his superiors who interrogated him about his adventures and prolonged absence. In the Short Title Catalogue Netherlands you search for the various editions until 1800 of Hamel’s report in the Dutch version.

Other roads to quick insight

By now you might conclude I am all in favor of good tutorials with proper references, transcriptions and translations, and I will mention some of them later on. I feel even tempted to ponder creating a tutorial myself, but I had better send you first to two portals with a lot of Early Modern documents in Dutch and a substantial presence of legal documents. Surprisingly art history comes here to help my needs.

Header Remdoc - KNAW/RU

At the portal Remdoc, a project fo the Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences and the Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, you can consult many documents about or related to Rembrandt van Rijn. It is the companion to The Rembrandt Database with information about his paintings, drawings and etchings. At Remdoc you can easily choose among 100 court records, 182 municipal records and 316 notarial acts. You can filter for holding institutions and even for the kind of document you would like to see. The Dutch terms are translated in English. Depositions, tax rolls, affidavits, fines, securities, inventories of insolvency, probate inventories, marriage announcements, two pleadings, due bills, you name it and you can get them. In many cases you will find images of the documents.

Document of a loan, 1653

Obligation to Rembrandt, 1653 – Amsterdam, Stadsarchief, Notarieel Archief, no. 1029B, p. 913 – image Remdoc and Stadsarchief Amsterdam

I picked a document for a loan Rembrandt got from Christoffel Thijsz. in 1649 to buy a house. It is the small inserted document at the right. The Remdoc project gives you a zoomable image, exact references about the source and relevant literature, a transcription of the seventeenth-century Dutch and a translation in English. This document tells you Rembrandt had failed to repay this loan for the purchase of his house, the very Rembrandthuis in de Sint-Anthoniebreesteeg – now the Jodenbreestraat – worth 7000 guilders in 1649, and that Christoffel Thijsz. claimed this sum with three years interest and additional costs, a total of 8470 guilders. The comments on the page of the portal explain the context of this document.

The due bill, 1653

Sometimes there is no other road to a destination than going the long road, and in my view it is not a punishment to learn about Rembrandt, by all accounts no stranger to human failure. His greatness is the way he conveyed his insight into human nature with consummate artistry. In Rembrandt’s work you have the uncanny sensation of knowing intimately the people facing you. It makes his series of self portraits into a touching voyage through his life.

The city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch (Bois-le-Duc), the Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences and again the Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, have created a similar project for Jeroen Bosch called BoschDoc. On the project website you can use either the Dutch, English or Spanish interface. Here, too, you will find a wide variety of sources and often images of original documents, but always at least a transcription, a translation, comments and further references. Art historians are familiar with the Montias database of 17th century art inventories of the Frick Collection in New York, but the Montias database does not include images of archival records. Dutch probate inventories have been transcribed for a database of the Meertens Instituut for Dutch ethnology, Amsterdam. The website of Joseph Byrne (Belmont University) will guide you to literature about ancient, medieval and Early Modern wills and probate inventories. I would almost forget the website of the Amboyna Conspiracy Trail where you can find a number of Dutch records, transcriptions and English translations side by side.

Learning by doing

In the current absence of an English online manual for Dutch palaeography it is sensible to search for a collection with online images of documents, transcriptions and translations in order to guide your first steps in a language that might sound strange to you and certainly differs from modern Dutch, and in a script that might look baffling. If I had to deal with similar documents from another country I would perhaps also start searching for a project presenting documents around a famous person. For example a search for Early Modern letters at Early Modern Letters Online (Bodleian Libraries, Oxford) would certainly bring you to a helpful project. Such documents offer a great training ground. In my view the only way to maintain your skills in deciphering old scripts is by regular exercise, but you will need initial training. At many universities and archives you can join groups to acquire palaeographical skills. Online tutorials can surely help you to overcome unnecessary fear, but they can also make you aware of real difficulties.

Since a year I have been collecting online resources for palaeography at a new page of my legal history portal Rechtshistorie. Until now I have found ten tutorials for Dutch palaeography. Since 2016 three archives in North Brabant and the Utrecht archives offer at Wat Staat Daer [“What’s That?”] a tutorial, and at an online forum people can upload images with their questions. In a few cases people from Canada came with Dutch documents they considered illegible or in other respects too difficult for them.

Banner Haagse Handschriften

The only tutorial from Belgium, Iter-digitalicum from Leuven, scores points with a poster in English with core information, something missing elsewhere. Apart from many texts in Dutch you can view in the gallery with nearly 700 manuscripts also manuscripts written in Arabic, Armenian and Coptic, and for example humanist letters to and by François Cranevelt. It would mean writing another post if I would give here a full comparison of these tutorials, but not the least among them is Haagse handschriften [Manuscripts from The Hague], a website of the municipal archive, focusing on sixteenth-century criminal law, a register of criminal jurisdiction for the years 1575-1579 called Quaetclap [literally “Slander”] (HGA, Oud Rechterlijk Archief, no. 1) with facing images of the register and transcriptions. The other strength of this tutorial is the rich section with references for general documentation, covering not only other auxiliary sciences, but also for example guidelines for transcriptions and editions and legal dictionaries, often with links to digitized versions. Information for both last subjects you cannot easily find together online elsewhere. The tutorial offers a similar reference page on the history of The Hague.

Surmounting supposed and real difficulties is sometimes a personal matter. Often it is motivating to delve into a subject that seems at the surface difficult. Once your interest in a particular thing is kindled, you will start to enjoy finding out more about it, and thus familiarizing yourself will not feel heavy or boring. As a historian I personally like to visualize behind documents real people and their lives. Medieval farmers did not plough through registers, someone famously said! Reading the original documents about early New York, Rembrandt or Bosch should make you happy and curious about people. Being able to read old scripts will also set you free from complete reliance on transcriptions and translations. Guidance and commentaries can be helpful and even necessary to some extent, but in the end you are studying the past and its traces, and you will learn how to interpret and use sources yourself in a reliable way.

A postscript

From December 7, 2018 untill April 7, 2019 the municipal archives in Amsterdam will present the exhibit Rembrandt Privé [Rembrandt Privately]. The exhibit will show the use of augmented reality for studying archival records. Some documents damaged by a fire in 1762 have now been digitized. At the educational resource Geschiedenislokaal Amsterdam [History Class Amsterdam] you can find a number of digitized documents concerning Rembrandt from the rich holdings of the Stadsarchief Amsterdam.